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Professors piece together manuscript of Abraham Lincoln's math homework

Posted by Your Town  June 11, 2013 04:07 PM

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Two professors in Illinois have determined that a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s math homework, currently housed in the Harvard archives, is part of a larger arithmetic manuscript. According to archivists, this problem set is the earliest surviving Lincoln document.

“There is nothing that predates it,” said Leslie Morris, the curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Harvard Houghton Library.

Morris said that the leaflet, which has been at Harvard since 1954, was originally part of a collection from Lincoln’s law partner.

“It has a lot of resonance for people,” she said. “Not only is this the earliest surviving document from one of the country’s most beloved presidents, it is a document that everyone can identify with.”

According to a joint statement released by Illinois State University and the Houghton Library, the leaflet at Harvard is the eleventh leaf in Lincoln’s arithmetic set. Lincoln completed the document while attending schools in Indiana between the years of 1820 and 1826, the statement said.

The problem sets included the following questions:

If the tuition of 3 boys for two quarters of a year be $40-20 cts how much will the tuition of 60 boys amount to for 4½ years?

If 4 men in 5 days eat 7 lb. of bread, how much will be sufficient for 16 men in 15 days?

If 100 dollars in one year gain 3½ dollars interest, what sum will gain $38.50 cents in one year and a quarter?

Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements, the professors who figured out that the separate documents were part of a larger manuscript, said in the statement that Lincoln was a very good math student.

“The solutions to the mathematics problems in Lincoln's manuscript show that the young Abraham not only knew what he was doing, but also that he understood the mathematical principles he was applying," said Clements and Ellerton. "Almost all of his problem solutions were correct."

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com. For campus news updates, follow her on Twitter @klandergan.

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